Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 8, 2014
Mary Quinlan-McGrath Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 304 pp.; 14 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780226922843)
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Mary Quinlan-McGrath’s Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance establishes and explains the parameters for the Renaissance continuation of the traditional belief in astrology and astronomy. Fundamentally important is the interrelationship of the two: how the heavenly bodies in their specified configurations conveyed influence upon the earth, and in turn how the absorbed celestial essences or “qualities” were capable of reflecting that power on their surroundings. In principle this was a continuation of Platonic and Neoplatonic Christian consideration of how the emanation of divine light connects the world to the creator, and how the science of light, optics, and most importantly vision is a source for understanding God and his creation. Quinlan-McGrath charts and explains the history of this tradition from antiquity through the Middle Ages and up to Marsilio Ficino in the early modern period. This includes the necessary understanding of composing and reading horoscopes and those who historically utilized these techniques for establishing the best times to begin building projects, for example, or predict the outcome of events. She deals deftly with important arguments among humanists, theologians, scientists, patrons, and practitioners on how this ancient practice is accepted within a Christian framework. A seamless connection was thought to exist in this tradition between the celestial bodies and the sublunar world, a position that Ficino in the early modern period assumes and advances, especially regarding the participation of art in the science of astrology. That celestial forces were understood to affect art and architecture, Quinlan-McGrath points out, “gives a new meaning to the seductive power of art” (ix).

At the crux of this intersection of pagan and Christian attachment to astrology, however, there were divisions. While large events or actions might be predictable on an astrological basis, such power over individual human action threatened the validity of free will in the Christian tradition. Though matter could be affected, the influence on the immaterial intellect, the location of the immortal soul, was an entirely different consideration. In the end, it was argued, one’s will could always be asserted against the predictions of fate. Yet, it seems there was a more significant issue enfolded in this consideration of celestial influence, which posed a larger and more important stumbling block. The Dominicans—read Thomas Aquinas earlier and then Girolamo Savonarola in late fifteenth-century Florence—argued that “figures,” or man-made images, never mind the problem of free will, cannot in and of themselves convey celestial power. In this regard the central focus of the book emerges: the role of works of art, within which Quinlan-McGrath develops the question of whether man-made images, “figures,” could actually, legitimately, and effectively absorb and reflect celestial rays.

The argument revolves around how the forces of the light (light radiation) emanating from heaven are influential, how they are received, and how they give back influences to those who were exposed. While this could apply to natural substances that compose the materials of the earth and things made from them (e.g., cities, buildings such as a church or private residence), for Aquinas, however, a man-made “figure” such as a drawing or painting cannot be “natural.” Moreover, and the worse for the arts, if such a figure did demonstrate astrological force it would be the result of demonic power. To counter the Dominicans, Ficino constructed in his De vita (1489) an argument that the essence of form, “qualities,” did descend naturally into such mad-made figures and therefore would have astrological potency of a non-demonic nature. Quinlan-McGrath argues that Ficino astutely took advantage of the Dominican inability to actually explain how “qualities” descend into matter by drawing upon the Neoplatonic tradition that more successfully established this connection. Ficino was able to subtly introduce positions that saved art from anything less than its full potential, though somewhat hedging his bets so as not to fall on the wrong side of prevailing theological opinion—especially during the dangerous years of Savanarola’s influence in Florence.

Having explained the basics of the interface of astrology and astronomy for the Christian late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and how Ficino resolves the problem of whether “figures” and man-made art can participate in the universal ray theory, Quinlan-McGrath examines several key, well-documented examples. The reader is treated to detailed and sensitive analysis of astrological painting in the Villa Farnesina, the Villa Caprarola, the Vatican Library, as well to the astrological consideration of carefully researched horoscopes that went into the founding of these structures, including the New St. Peter’s, and even the planning of the ideal city of Sforzinda (though it was never built). These are richly rewarding discussions that clearly explain the details and nuances of what the patrons and artists accomplished, though what is particularly interesting is the complexity of purpose in terms of how astrological influences would be absorbed. There is both positive- and ill-intentioned purpose at work on the part of certain patrons.

Quinlan-McGrath unfolds engaging and important arguments, and without disclosing the fascinating detail I will merely suggest that it is largely around the analysis of astrological paintings that the question of art and astrology emerges with the greatest suggestive force. As she makes clear, Ficino’s most trenchant arguments in his De vita reflect a maturation of his thinking about the larger issue of vision and visuality vis-à-vis the question of astrological influence. Consequently, the most intriguing question posed by the book emerges for this reader. How is art important in the context of astral, heavenly influence? Quinlan-McGrath leaves no doubt of its role in her analysis of the sites mentioned, but left unaddressed is the issue of other art, or even all art during this period. Is it affected in the same ways? For example, one of the things Ficino resolves regarding Aquinas’s objection to the power of the artificial figure’s form deals with the notion that art consists of order, composition, shape, and mathematics. While Aquinas denies any force other than demonic to such form, Ficino argues, as we have seen, that such art has the ability to potentially absorb and reflect celestial influence. Could this mean then that all art appropriately arranged with such universal qualities would be capable of reflecting astral influence, or only images that depict astral imagery per se, such as those in Caprarola and the Villa Farnesina? After all, Leon Battista Alberti, for whom Quinlan-McGrath claims great importance and on whom she promises a forthcoming work, proposed in his On Painting (1435) that these very things—composition, order, geometry (indeed things borrowed from mathematicians and then made concrete)—were the building blocks of successful painting. If so, can Ficino’s reasoning be seen to coincide with Alberti’s and therefore perhaps reflect a broader epistemology of vision that informed his thinking, one that could be applied to a wide array of imagery whose essential forms would be thought capable of absorbing and reflecting astral influence?

Any reader interested in the art of this period will be rewarded with an expanded understanding of the complexity of visuality embedded within the naturalism of Renaissance art. Building upon well-established scholarship, Quinlan-McGrath has forged new ways in which to think about how art was conceived and viewed. By exploiting the role of Ficino in particular, she has broken new ground in bringing together traditional views on astrology with important insight into the power of art to enliven the interplay of matter and spirit. I have no reservations in thinking this an important contribution to art-historical and cultural studies of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, I do sense that there is an unresolved tension regarding what Ficino is convincingly thought to have accomplished. While the book’s central argument opens the door to reading Renaissance art more broadly, it pulls back from the very breadth of such implications. In all fairness, this is inherent in the fact that the sites chosen for discussion are ideal for understanding how images are astrologically charged. Still if we are to accept the full potential of imagery (and clearly the potency of certain subject matter), especially in terms of compositional order, mathematics, and geometry, then what of more typical religious subjects, both narrative and devotional? How might we figure these influences of astral qualities to work through a more inclusive range of artwork?

In any case, readers will be delighted to discover a clear, insightful, and unique assessment of the question of how the Renaissance dealt with the confluence of astronomy and astrology on the early side of any real scientific investigations of the heavens. Influences will be highly regarded by all interested students and scholars of the period. For those intrigued by the larger implications of Quinlan-McGrath’s study, it will be apparent that she has peered through a very interesting portal onto what is a growing interdisciplinary interest in understanding the intersection of spiritual and material reality. By exploring the direction that Ficino develops in De vita she sensitively probes the legitimacy of human facture and its share in having absorbed divine qualities that are in turn reflected forth to influence viewers. Perhaps we will discover from her more about the efficacy of Renaissance art, its “seductive power,” beyond the scope of images that have been documented as having specific astrological purpose.

Charles Carman
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Studies, University at Buffalo

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